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July 7th, 2008 – I was sick. I wrote in my journal that I lay in bed (or near the head) from 10 pm to 4 pm with a break for breakfast. Ugh! I tried to motivate myself to go out and grab lunch but to no avail.
July 8th, I took the initiative, despite still feeling a little under the weather, and I went out to see Spituk Monastery (Gompa) – it is the monastery on the hill which you see as you land at the airport. It is above both the civilian airport and an Indian air force base. I truly appreciate how the spiritual life overlaps the military presence in India. Back to the story, Spituk is a Gelugpa Gompa, fairly large with two sections (two buildings with large and smaller shrine rooms) plus a protector shrine up some steep stairs. I found it unusual considering the protector shrine has images of Shiva – therefore it is considered both a Hindu and Buddhist monastery (at the time, I had difficulty rectifying this, however now I realize Shiva is also a protector of the Gelugs and the Dalai Lama – Yay! We can share deities).
First I will describe the Gonkhang (Protector Shrine) as there were more Hindu pilgrims there than Buddhists (me). I assumed they were Hindu because they tended to have a red dot between their eye brows. But I could be off. This was a very fancy, and therefore very well off, protector shrine. There was plush carpet in the entrance room, fabric on all the walls and the ceiling, and monks were handing out little spoonfuls of blessed food (forgot what it was and did not write it down – but I recall it being spiced and flavorful) and the protector deities were all covered. If you stand facing the statues, then there are a few masks behind you – a nice touch.
In the monastery, there were many little shrines – 21 Taras, Shakyamuni and attendants were in one of the main halls, 1000 arm Chenrezig, 16 Arhats, 8 close disciples of the Buddha and tiny statues of Bodhisattvas. There were dogs running around, along with a mother cat and her kittens. In the primary meditation hall, the Dalai Lama’s throne was very ornate, along with Bakula Rinpoche’s (just a touch lower of course). Bakula Rinpoche’s previous incarnation was very politically active, and he was one of the few monks / politicians – he was an ambassador to Mongolia (from India). We had the great fortune to receive blessings from the current incarnation while we were in the Nubra Valley – only thing is he was about 4 years old at the time – probably a few years away from politics.
I happened to walk into the other meditation hall accidentally. Later I realized it was kind of cordoned off. There were a few monks in there carrying on – laughing and talking and one was working on a sand mandala when I walked in. However, once they realized I was a tourist or Westerner (not sure which or both) they all quieted down and started moving things around the mandala’s table. They were working on the outline – done in pencil first – before the sand goes down. They told me it was to be a Yamataka mandala. I wish I could have seen it.
This monastery has a nice view of the large Indus River Valley, where Leh and the airports are located. From the monastery you can see many tiny buildings, villages and houses. I would recommend seeing this monastery if you have some extra time, as the protector shrine is a bit unusual, however I thought other monasteries had more to offer in terms of statuary. Plus this monastery is only 15 minutes from Leh.
On a side note, the taxis in Ladakh do very well. Not because they stiff you, but because they are unionized – at least the ones dealing with travel agencies are. Therefore the drivers do well and you know what to expect to pay, even if the price is a little steep. It will be steep everywhere you go in Ladakh.